Morgan Freeman Brings You the Universe

Mankind has long been at the mercy of the cosmos – subject to the often violent happenings of the boundless universe that exists beyond the confines of Earth’s atmosphere. But today humans are taking huge steps to claim space for their own design, evolution and survival in what is becoming a new race for space. In the all-new three-part special MAN VS. THE UNIVERSE, world premiering Wednesday, August 13 at 10 PM ET/PT, Science Channel is bringing viewers a mind-blowing look at the innovative, high-tech work private businesses, engineers and scientists are doing to occupy Mars, mine the Moon’s fertile grounds and keep asteroids from destroying life on Earth.

“Space truly is the final frontier for humans,” said Rita Mullin, General Manager, Science Channel. “For the first time ever we’re taking proactive steps to protect ourselves from its perils, and use its vast resources to ensure our survival. This process features extraordinary ideas driven by astonishing feats of technology and engineering. We hope MAN VS. THE UNIVERSE captures some of the remarkable work happening right now in this new race for space, and gives viewers an appreciation for the incredibly smart, creative, driven people doing this work.”

MAN VS. THE UNIVERSE is an epic three-part miniseries from Science Channel and Revelations Entertainment, the producers of the critically acclaimed, Emmy-Award nominated series THROUGH THE WORMHOLE WITH MORGAN FREEMAN that unveils an unprecedented era of space exploration happening right now. In MAN VS. THE UNIVERSE viewers go inside the race to the Moon where the grand prize offers a total of $30 million in winnings to the first privately funded teams to land a robot on the Moon that successfully travels more than 500 meters (1,640 ft) and transmits back high-definition images and video. Deeper in our galaxy lies Mars, with an atmosphere 100 times thinner than Earth’s, air that is almost pure carbon dioxide and an average temperature of minus 80 degrees, colonizing this planet will be no picnic. MAN VS. THE UNIVERSE explores how high tech spacesuits are being created so humans can live comfortably in this environment 24/7, while we experiment turning Martian soil into water. MAN VS. THE UNIVERSE is also keeping an eye on our home planet as engineers and scientists prepare for the next mega asteroid attack, similar to what killed off the dinosaurs. They are pushing the limits trying to create an enormous capture bag – a robotic vehicle that will go out and snag an asteroid partway between Earth and Mars, and drag it back to orbit the moon. If that doesn’t work, Plan B is DE-STAR, a massive solar-powered array of laser beams that vaporize asteroids ten times larger than a football field.

Full-length Felix Bomgartner helmet cam video released

Just over one year ago, Felix Bomgartner rode his Red Bull Stratos balloon to the staggering height of 128,000 feet and then leaped out, free-falling from the stratosphere. It was the highest skydive ever made and, thanks to the extremely thin atmosphere, Bomgartner quickly broke the record for the fastest freefall at just over 840 MPH.

Prior to now, bit and pieces of the footage recorded by Bomgartner’s helmet cam have been released, but now, on the heels of the documentary release, the full nine-minute video has been released.

Astronomer Phil Plait points out that “Baumgartner accelerates to a velocity of 700 km/hr in a mere 20 seconds. That means he was accelerating at an average of about 9.7 meters per second per second — just about what you’d expect for an object falling to Earth in a vacuum, where the only force is that of gravity”.

While many news agencies were quick to describe this jump as “from the edge of space”, Plait also points out that space begins at a height of 100 KM and Bomgartner leaped from 39 KM. That doesn’t make it any less cool, of course, just a technical aspect of the perspective. If you are high enough to see the curvature of the earth, then its not somewhere most people would be comfortable with being, let alone jumping from.

Cool space and astronomy themes for Windows

You know that those of us at GNC love space and astronomy almost as much as we love computers and technology. While we all use different operating systems — Windows, Mac, and even Linux, we can all agree that a good space theme is cool. There isn’t any shortage of those available either.

In fact, you don’t even have to look far to find one. Microsoft and other sites make them available. Even NASA themselves posts one now and again. So, it’s the weekend and news is slow. With that in mind, it’s a great time to do a quick roundup of these themes that are floating around out there.

Windows

Image of M82 or the Cigar Galaxy from NASA's Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes, and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory

Microsoft does a great job of making themes for all occasions — movie and game releases, seasons, holidays and just cool photography. The latter is the category we are looking for. Head to the personalization gallery where you can browse or do a keyword search.

Windows Observer

Richard Hay, who runs the great Windows Observer site and podcast, has created several space-based themes. Thanks to NASA images being in the public domain, anyone can do this, but thanks to Richard you don’t need to. He also posts idividual wallpapers and has even begun breaking down themes specifically for both Windows 7 and Windows 8. You can browse the themes here.

Windows 7 Themes

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Another great web site for finding themes and wallpapers, although it’s a bit confusing to navigate. If you want to take a look then head over to this site.

There are many other sources for wallpaper and themes around the internet, just be careful of fakes when downloading anything from a web site that you aren’t familiar with.

Curiosity Spent Halloween Taking Amazing Self Portrait

Most of us have spent the past couple of months being completely fascinated with Curiosity, the latest and largest lander to roam the surface of Mars.  NASA has been regularly posting images snapped by the multiple cameras on board the rover, but the one it snapped on October 31st may be the best so far.

Astronomer Phil Plait, who pointed this image out, dubbed it “the single greatest vacation picture ever taken” and I can’t argue one bit. After all, how would you like to send this image home to friends and family?  The incredible self-portrait took some work.  It’s actually a composite made up of 55 different high-resolution images taken by a camera mounted at the end of a two meter long arm (the arm was edited out to improve the image).

You can get much more detailed information by visiting Phil’s Bad Astronomy blog over at Discover Magazine.  The image looks much like any desert on earth, but it’s a much starker and colder location than the images belie.  You can view the full resolution at the link below the image.

Preliminary self-portrait of Curiosity

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

New Helmet Cam Video of Baumgartner’s Incredible Freefall from Space

Yesterday Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner ascended to the dizzying height of 128,100 feet (24.2 miles) above the earth in a two hour balloon ride.  He then came back down in a considerably faster way by stepping out of his capsule onto a tiny platform, giving a salute, and jumping.  The event broke many records, including highest jump, longest distance freefall and highest speed, as he broke the sound barrier by hitting Mach 1.24.  He also shattered internet viewing records as YouTube reported over 8 million simultaneous live streams.

If you watched the event live then you probably noticed what appeared to be an almost out-of-control spin during the descent.  Now new footage has appeared on Austrian TV (Baumgartner’s native country) that shows the view from the camera mounted to his helmet, and it’s a dizzying descent indeed.

Previous record holder, Colonel Joe Kittinger who jumped from 19 miles way back in 1960, was front and center at Mission Control and was the voice in Felix’s ear throughout the event.  You can watch the entire 2.5 hour Odyssey condensed down to a minute and a half here.  The footage from the headcam can seen below, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

A Possible Big Night Sky Show Coming in 2013

Orbit diagram

If you haven’t heard, a new comet was recently spotted.  Even better, it’s expected to pass ridiculously close to earth in 2013 and, if those predictions prove true, it will put on quite a show in our night sky.  The new object goes by the catchy name of of C/2012 S1, but is generally being called ISON.

The projected orbit should take ISON directly towards the sun in November 2013, causing melting which will result in a very defined tail.  By January 2014 it should pass 60 million kilometers from Earth, and that combination of large tail and proximity to earth could result in a night sky object approximately as bright as the moon.  That would make ISON the brightest comet ever seen.

According to a NASA report, “comet researcher John Bortle has pointed out a curious similarity between the orbit of Comet ISON and that of the Great Comet of 1680. ‘Purely as speculation,’ he says, ‘perhaps the two bodies could have been one a few revolutions ago.'”

All of this is still somewhat unknown because, for one thing, the brightness will depend on the composition of materials making up the comet and how much melting actually occurs.  However, the best estimates at this point are leaning towards a best-case scenario for anyone interested in the night sky.

Image: NASA

World’s Highest Skydive Calls for World’s Biggest Balloon

By now you probably know about the world record skydive attempt that is upcoming.  The “Red Bull Challenge” will have Felix Baumgartner jump from an astonishing 23 miles above the surface of the earth, effectively from the edge of space.  Now we are learning some of the more interesting tidbits from behind the scenes of this record-breaking jump.

The technology that lies behind a feat like this is, as you can imagine, pretty amazing.  First, there’s the pressurized capsule that resembles something like what the Apollo astronauts splashed down inside of.  Then there is the massive balloon required to haul both the capsule and the jumper to such mind-boggling heights.  The balloon is so large that it will actually require 10 workers just to unfurl it and it will take about 45 minutes just to fill the 334 foot tall polyethylene structure.  Even more amazing is the fact that the balloon is actually about 10 times thinner than the average sandwich bag.

Baumgartner expects to become the first human to break the sound barrier when he makes the historic leap, a faster speed than Joe Kittinger attained during his record setting 1960 jump in which he reached 614 mph, or Mach 0.9.

Astrononomy Photographer of the Year

The winning images from the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2012 were announced today and as you might expect, they’re absolutely stunning. Organised by the Royal Observatory in conjunction with the Sky at Night magazine and Flickr, every single one of the pictures is fantastic.

Nearly 700 pictures were submitted to Flickr for 2012 and you can see them all in the Flickr Group Pool for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year. There’s an endless supply of background images when you include the previous year’s entrants.

Milky Way Reflected in Tioga Lake

Photograph by Rick Whiteacre. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The BBC is showing off some of the photographs from the competition in a narrated presentation that’s well worth a watch as well.

The photographs are on show at the Royal Observatory through to 17 February 2013.

Neil Armstrong: 1930-2012

I won’t try to write a eulogy or a tribute.  I will leave that up to people who know more than me, but I did want to take a moment to post a tribute of some sort to the man who inspired a whole new generation of explorers.  Without Neil Armstrong so many things we take for granted now may never have happened.  He had the courage to take that “first step”, in more ways than just the obvious one.